California's North Coast Water Relics

By: Will Parrish
October 15, 2014

In roughly three weeks, the relatively slim percentage of Californians who vote in the Nov. 2014 election will decide on a politically contentious (is there any other kind of water politics in California?) $7.5 billion state general obligation bond, Proposition 1, entitled “THE State Water Bond” (emphasis added). A creature of the dominant political response to California’s panic-strickening drought, the bond issue would provide a greater level of financing for new water projects than any in the state’s recent history.

Although the bond includes funding for everything from bike trails to water recycling to wetlands restoration, its most pivotal line item is $2.7 billion that would be allocated to expanded water storageThat likely means dams, and it especially likely means help with construction of the Sites Reservoir, a vast new facility just east of the Mendocino National Forest, about 10 miles west of the town of Maxwell. The bond singles it out for special mention.

Sites Reservoir would involve two large dams on the mainstem Sacramento River, each around 310 feet high. The water would be ferried through the Tehama-Colusa and Glen-Colusa canals, as well as a third canal that would be built specifically for the project and originate north of Colusa. All of this liquid gold would thereby be plumbed into the Antelope Valley, drowning an estimated 14,000 acres of grassland, oak woodland, chaparral, riparian habitat, vernal pools, and wetlands (including 19 acres of rare alkali wetlands). The water bond, it should be noted, would only cover part of the cost of constructing these enormous new installations. Sites would be California’s first massive water infrastructure project since the 1982 completion of Lake Sonoma, a huge reservoir that is nevertheless less than one-fifth as large, which dams the headwaters of Dry Creek: a tributary of the Russian River that runs off the opposite slope of the Navarro River’s headwaters southeast of Anderson Valley. As of this writing, the state water bond enjoys strong support, especially from the state’s political leaders: Only one state legislator voted against placing the bond on the ballot.

The growing specter of California’s first massive dam in more than three decades brings up a major point about the State of California’s long-term planning process. The state’s infrastructure agencies tend to develop their water supply, transportation, and other projects based on 25-, 50-, and 100-year plans. With the persistence of Banquo’s ghost, projects conceived before many voters were born can quickly come back to life after political alignments change in response to big events, such as big droughts.For their part, California water infrastructure planners have long envisioned capturing virtually every single drop of free-flowing water in this state behind a dam, enabling them to control exactly where water goes and who receives it. I have sitting on my computer desktop a PDF of a 1964 California Department of Water Resources document entitled “Possible Additional Facilities to the State Water Resources Development System in the North Coastal Area and West Side Sacramento Valley.” The document is compelling exactly because of how shocking it is to the sensibilities of most people who would view it today: an era in which it is widely acknowledged that unlimited exploitation of the natural world is a death sentence for the planet. By contrast, this document is the product of an era in which California’s highways, dams, canals, electrical grid, suburban housing, and industrial manufacturing capacity grew recklessly and without restraint.

For perspective here, consider that the largest reservoir currently existing today in California, the Shasta Reservoir, holds 3.5 million acre-feet of water, and consider further that California has altered its natural watersheds to a greater extent than any area of equivalent size in the world. This map features at least four reservoirs that would be considerably larger than Shasta Reservoir. The map is color-coded. Installations drawn in red are an intermediate priority, meaning they are feasible to build in the next 25 years. Those drawn in green are a priority to build in the next 50 years.


The largest of the reservoirs this document envisions, the so-called “Humboldt Reservoir” (which appears on the 50-year plan), would span much of Humboldt County’s interior, including an enormous swath of the Six Rivers National Forest. It would capture water from the Eel and Klamath Rivers via a dam on the lower Klamath, for the purpose of shunting that water via a network of tunnels and canals into the so-called Helena Reservoir — a huge add-on to the existing Trinity Reservoir. From there, it would be on to Whiskeytown Reservoir and thence to the Sacramento River, which would virtually pipe it down to the main beneficiaries of this unparalleled plumbing system: San Joaquin Valley agribusiness and the water districts that provide Southern California’s megalopolises. What did state water infrastructure planners have in mind for Mendocino County?

Well, if you like Lake Mendocino now, you may just learn to love the so-called “Enlarged Coyote Valley Reservoir,” which would expand the current reservoir by a factor of five. Five!

But there’s so much more.

A new dam on the Eel River would expand the present-day Van Arsdale Reservoir and Lake Pillsbury Reservoir above Potter Valley — currently separated by a distance of more than 40 river miles — into one continuous reservoir known as English Ridge Reservoir. The reservoir would extend even further than that, though, encompassing a significant expanse north of Potter Valley. (The US Bureau of Reclamation energetically pursued this plan for a time in the late 60s) Round Valley would have been entirely flooded, its current residents forcibly relocated, more or less, by a dam on the Middle Fork Eel River. In place of Round Valley, we would have the Dos Rios Reservoir, an enormous man-made (and, to a far lesser extent, woman-made) lake that would connect to English Ridge Reservoir by way of the so-called Elk Creek Tunnel. English Ridge, in turn, would drain into Clear Lake via the Garrett Tunnel, which would be bored through the mountains that comprise the southern portion of the Mendocino National Forest. Dos Rios Reservoir would feature a second outlet, providing a more direct route to the Central Valley, a tunnel feeding into another massive new reservoir also envisioned on this map, the Glenn Reservoir Complex in Glenn County. This enormous reservoir, far larger than Shasta Reservoir, would be just west of the actually-existing Black Butte Reservoir, which is roughly due east of Chico.

And that’s still not enough water for the good people of Glenn County to have on hand, either. Spencer Reservoir would capture the waters of the North Fork Eel River channel (remember, the Eel has four major forks — all slated for new dams here), shunting it off into the Glenn Reservoir Complex as well.

And those are just some of the projects our state’s water planners envisioned as possibilities worth considering in the ensuing 25 years.

The 50-year plan would involve development of the Bell Springs Reservoir and the Sequoia Reservoir, which would flood most of the remainder of the mainstem Eel River’s 192-mile channel, or at least the portion not already drowned under the aforementioned English Ridge Reservoir, beneath another reservoir about four times larger than the latter.

Part of the reason these projects never came to pass is that when the Army Corps of Engineers and the State Division of Water Resources pursued construction of the Dos Rios Reservoir in the late-1960s, they were thwarted by vigorous grassroots opposition and Republican Governor Ronald Reagan, who vetoed state funding for the facility. The social upheavals of the time compelled Reagan and other leading politicians of the era to grant many of the demands of the burgeoning environmental movement, with this political dynamic leading to passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act several years later.

(Mark Scaramella’s uncle, then-Supervisor and Mendocino County board chairman Joe Scaramella, also opposed the Dos Rios dam, not on environmental grounds, but on the grounds that the dam would take hundreds of square miles of prime ag land out of production and, even more importantly, off the County’s tax rolls. Joe Scaramella helped Richard Wilson organize opposition to the crazy idea in the months leading up to Reagan’s veto. All of this is documented in Ted Simon’s fine book, “The River Stops Here.”)

But once the wheels of an enormous bureaucratic machinery start turning on an idea, does it ever really die? Not entirely. The state transportation agency that prefigured CalTrans put forth a transportation infrastructure plan roughly two years prior to the State Division of Water Resources master plan, in 1962, which called for (among many other things) a four-lane freeway bypass around the tiny north Mendocino County town of Willits. For a time, the idea seemed entirely antiquated. Then, CalTrans and local politicians dusted it off in the early-90s. California voters approved general obligation bond money in 2006 for transportation projects. CalTrans siphoned off a big chunk of those funds into the coffers of its Willits Bypass project, which will handle only 5,000-10,000 cars a day. And you all know what happened from there.

There are other interesting parallels in California’s history. In 1906, the conflagrations that consumed San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake provided renewed impetus for the Hetch Hetchy Dam project, which San Francisco-based engineers first developed in detail in 1864: exactly 100 years before the Division of Water Rights developed its master plan for transferring North Coast water to the Central Valley and Southern California. If water tunneled into The City from the Sierra Nevadas had been available, project boosters asserted with little foundation, then the fires never would have been extinguished.

In December 1964, the largest flood in the modern history of the Eel River caused what biologists refer to as a “mass wasting event.” It was another case of North Coast ecosystems’ sacrifice on the altar of reckless expansion elsewhere in the state. Clear-cut logging throughout the Eel River system had fueled the suburban construction boom in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. The reckless logging had left deforested soils to run off into the river channel, with hundreds of miles of temporary roads also contributing to the problem. The Army Corps attempted to justify the construction of the Dos Rios Dam for flood control. However, among all the proposed dams on the Eel River, Dos Rios would have the lowest impact on flood control. The moral of the story: natural disasters create huge new political openings. Nowadays, California’s water infrastructure boosters are saying this new set of proposals are the answer to the state’s water supply problem. Of course, California’s existing reservoirs sit empty in large part due to the loss of snow melt, not capacity problems; climate change is a huge new factor in all of this. Of course, the odds that any of the abandoned projects I’ve mentioned in this piece will be revived any time soon are slim. But if dams become a popularly supported political solution to the state’s water woes, it remains to be seen which seeming relics from the past the water boosters will dust off.


Originally published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser.

Additional information on the proposed Sites Reservoir, or “North of the Delta Offstream Storage” (NODOS) from the Bureau of Reclamation.